From Paralysis to Parenthood: Survivors Can't Conceive of a Life Without Children
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
As a 15-year-old facing a lifetime in a wheelchair, Tammy Voynik couldn’t help but have fears for her future. But at least one big worry was put to rest when her big sister shared some very welcome news. “She told me that the doctors said I could still have children someday. That was important to me. I always knew I wanted to have kids.”
Sixteen years later, the Brandon lawyer got her wish. Son Joseph Edward Voynik was born on May 16, 2001. And he’s one child who can definitely say he was “planned.” Before Voynik and husband Eddie decided to conceive, the vice president of legal affairs for Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson researched the topic like she was prepping for a pivotal court case.
“I went to the doctor with a big red envelope with my name on it and said: ‘Here’s your information.’ He told me he had never had a patient bring him research before. I even got down to the type of anesthesia you need.” Voynik learned that while pregnancy complications often depend on a woman’s level of spinal cord injury (SCI), most are at risk for a variety of complications . The most common include urinary tract infections (UTIs), blood clots, skin deterioration and a sometimes life-threatening condition known as autonomic dysreflexia. Balance also can be compromised by the extra weight of the baby, so pregnant women with spinal cord injuries have to be especially careful not to fall when transferring in and out of their wheelchairs. Voynik’s doctor treated her UTIs with ongoing antibiotic therapy, and she managed to avoid the other complications. She stayed worried, though, that she might go into labor and not know it.
“Very early contractions can be subtle, even for a woman without a spinal cord injury,” she said. “And when you’re paralyzed and have decreased sensation in some areas, there is always the concern that you might not realize you’re in labor until it’s pretty much advanced. That’s all I could think about: I was going to wake up in the middle of the night and have my baby at home.”
Although Voynik used a fetal monitor to detect signs of pre-term labor, it turned out that she was able to feel most of the early contractions. “A few times I thought I wouldn’t make it to my scheduled Csection,” she said. Ultimately, the doctor moved Voynik’s delivery date up and Joseph arrived two weeks early weighing a healthy 6 pounds and 3 ounces. “When I heard him cry, it was the most amazing thing that ever happened to me,” said Voynik, who gets teary-eyed at the memory. “Childbirth is stress and anxiety for anybody, but with my injury and so many unknowns … for him to come out healthy and crying was just incredible. I was so happy.”
Mixed in with the elation was a bit of anxiety. While nervousness is not unusual for first-time mothers, Voynik’s concerns were magnified. She wasn’t sure how she would meet all her baby’s needs from the seat of a wheelchair.
“The hardest thing for me was when I couldn’t give Joseph his first bath because I couldn’t get my wheelchair under the sink. Eddie had to do that and I cried.”
Soon, though, Voynik developed a strategy for all the rituals of motherhood. To keep Joseph secure in her lap while she wheeled around the house, Voynik nestled the infant either in a front pack or a Boppy Pillow (a special nursing pillow that she attached to her waist with sew-on straps). “Once he got too big for the Boppy Pillow, he would just sit on my lap. People were amazed how good he would be.”
Voynik said she chose her nursery furniture with an eye toward accessibility. Joseph’s crib had a rail that folds to the side on hinges, rather than drops to the floor, which provided needed clearance for her wheelchair. And to make room for her wheels under his changing table, she merely removed a couple of shelves.
Finding a daycare to accommodate her needs was a bigger challenge. But Voynik said she was fortunate to have assistance from a Methodist occupational therapist who scouted out her favorite facility—Crossgates Methodist Children’s Center—and made recommendations for modifications. The church installed ramps to the daycare building and playground, widened a doorway and cleared paths. “They were really good about making sure I had access like any other parent,” she said.
Voynik said the center also has done a good job of satisfying the curiosity that Joseph’s classmates have about her condition. “I was getting lots of questions,” she said. “The little kids would say, ‘You can’t walk?’ I would say: ‘No, my legs don’t work any more.’ And they said: ‘Even with your shoes on?’ “ To give the children a better understanding of her abilities, Voynik
and her daycare director turned to the children’s book “Mama Zooms,” a dayin-the-life of a mom in a wheelchair.
“Mama Zooms” pretty much sums up the frantic pace of Voynik’s life these days, but she admits the mania is of her own making. The whole experience of becoming parents went so well for the Voyniks that they decided on an encore performance. Anna Kate Voynik was born Dec. 17, 2003.
Because Anna arrived after the family had moved into a home that was designed for accessibility, the chores of parenthood have been a little easier. “I got to bathe Anna from day one because I was able to roll up under the sink,” Voynik said.
It has also helped that Eddie, a former firefighter and paramedic, switched to pharmaceutical sales, a career more accommodating of family time. “He is so involved in every aspect, I think that’s the whole reason things have been as easy for me,” Voynik said. “We’re a good team and share equally in parenting and household responsibilities. I love the fact that Eddie is a good father and a good cook.”
Whenever she can, Voynik said she likes to share her positive experience with other women who have doubts about rearing a family after sustaining a spinal cord injury. “I just share tips and tell them the key is to have lots of good prenatal care and a doctor who is going to pay attention and work with you, ” she said.
“Every spinal cord injury is different, so it is important to communicate well with your obstetrician and other physicians who are normally involved in treating matters unique to SCI.”
Time management is critical, too, she adds. “It takes a little longer for me to get the kids and all their belongings loaded in and out of the car and take care of things I might need to do for
myself. Good planning helps.”
As she looks back on the years since Joseph’s birth, Voynik says: “Having children is the best decision Eddie and I have made. They give you so much back. Becoming a mother is one of my biggest accomplishments and it is something I am proud of. My spinal cord injury hasn’t limited me from being as good a parent as I want to be.”
Indeed, Voynik makes it a point to ensure that her mobility issues don’t impede her children in any way. “Last year I took Joseph to swimming lessons with 5-month-old Anna strapped in my front pack baby carrier. This summer, I broke out my big four-wheelin’ wheelchair tires to make it easier to get across the T-ball field. We even flew with both kids to Hawaii in March (not that I would recommend that for anyone with two small children).
“The point is, it may take extra effort for me to do those things, but it is important to me to participate as any other parent would and to allow my children to experience things that other children do. There will always be some things I can’t physically do, but I hope I make up for that in other ways.”
“It looks like Eddie will need to teach the kids how to dance,” she adds with a laugh.
Tammy Voynik with son Joseph.
Eddie and Tammy Voynik play with their children, Joseph and Anna, at their home in Brandon.